Who is Richard Plugge? All about cycling's ceaseless visionary

From a journalist, to a team manager, to one of cycling's most powerful and controversial figures

To many, Richard Plugge, the general manager of Visma-Lease a Bike, is one of cycling’s few true entrepreneurs at heart; a leader with a long-term vision who is fixated, perhaps obsessed, on leaving his team, and the wider sporting arena, in a better place. It’s no surprise, to those who have got to know him well in the past decade, that, alongside his remarkable and meritorious transformation of a tainted cycling team to the greatest on the planet, he has simultaneously become the public face of the OneCycling plans to make professional road cycling more sustainable and comprehensible.

To others, including to an increasingly dismayed and growing number within the sport, he is an individual who does not see rules and laws as impenetrable boundaries, but as obstacles that can and will be bypassed. As president of the men’s teams’ organisation, the AIGCP, he has, according to some of his detractors, wrestled maximum control to the benefit of his team, and has purposefully refused to engage with lesser colleagues in order to drive through measures he steadfastly believes in. 

He is an admirer, almost a disciple, of Formula One guru Bernie Ecclestone, who in the 1980s helped turn the niche motor racing sport into one of the world’s biggest sporting successes. Plugge wants to do the same in cycling, believing that if the sport doesn’t change within the next decade, and adapt to modern day trends and consumer behaviours, it will face an existential threat. But can he, alongside keeping his team at the summit of the sport, really be the man to lead a revolution?

Journalist to team manager

Born in 1969 close to The Hague, the administrative capital of the Netherlands, Plugge grew up as a child enamoured with sport, and his first loves were both cycling and football. After graduating from university in the early 1990s, he began a career as a journalist, and he was made editor of Fiets, one of the Netherlands’ biggest cycling magazines, in his 30s; he subsequently took the helm of Procycling magazine’s Dutch edition, among other titles.

In the spring of 2012, his domestic profile having been elevated after a stint as a commentator for Dutch Eurosport, he joined the Rabobank WorldTour team as communications director. Seven months later, after the team’s long history with doping was laid bare, he replaced Harold Knebel and became the team’s new general manager. Rabobank, however, had done a runner, unwilling to be associated with a team that was now a byword for cheating scandals.

But Plugge weathered the post-Rabobank storm well, persuading Belkin, Lotto.NL and Jumbo to come on board as title sponsors in the following years. The successes of Dylan Groenewegen and Primož Roglič, both recruited in 2016, kickstarted the team’s sporting rise, and in 2019, the year they signed Wout van Aert, Norwegian firm Visma joined as co-title sponsor, providing serious investment to convert them into the powerhouse they are today, with an U23 development and a women’s team launching in the ensuing 12 months.

Image by Getty Images 

In a marked difference to Team Sky – an outfit Plugge studied and learned a lot from – the various guises of what is today known as Visma-Lease a Bike has been built on brave, daring racing, and it has been one of the main pillars and instigators of the attacking style that modern-day racing is characterised by. No one denies that Plugge’s team has a deserving and lasting place in cycling’s annals.

Plugge’s, and his team’s rise, admired by a sport that was initially inquisitive and sceptical of a former journalist taking the reins of a historic yet tarnished outfit, gradually brought with it greater responsibility. Allied to more and more success on the road, the highlights being Roglič winning successive Vuelta a España titles, Plugge became more convinced that he could assert his ideas and dreams not just over his own team but over the entire sport. 

Rocky roads

As a board member of the AIGCP since 2013, Plugge had been witness to plenty of squabbles and fights that have famously plagued the development of cycling for an eternity. He felt like he could be the one to finally end the factions and bring all teams together, and thus he was elected the organisation’s president in 2021. Other teams would, he hoped, be united around his idea of a refined cycling calendar in which teams earned money from races, the best riders all competed against each other more regularly, and the spectacle finally started attracting a bigger proportion of the sporting audience. That project, a reincarnation of similar concepts that have previously failed, would come to be known as OneCycling.

But in recent months, Plugge has taken a backseat, conscious of the fact that his name has become sullied, and that the plan – which Rouleur understands is deep in discussions with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – has little chance of succeeding if he is its figurehead. He has half-a-dozen staunch backers – including Soudal–Quick-Step’s Patrick Lefevere – but antagonism from the majority runs deep.

The offences, his critics point out, are varied: there was the failed merger with Soudal–Quick-Step last autumn that drew the ire of almost everyone in the sport; the signing of Cian Uijtdebroeks from Bora-Hansgrohe last December, five years after the court ruled Plugge’s team had to pay more than €600,000 for the poaching of Van Aert from his former team; the bad PR optics of threatening to sue fans at the Tour de France; questioning Groupama-FDJ’s riders for drinking wine at the Tour and likening alcohol to “poison”; and the alleged lack of communication and clarity about key decisions taken by the AIGCP.

Cédric Vasseur, manager of Cofidis, tweeted that Plugge should “Get out!!” of his role as AIGCP president after signing Uijtdebroeks, before later explaining to GCN that Plugge “just created shit for another team. How can we trust him? I don’t want to have anything to do with a president like this. If you can’t handle the responsibilities of being president then there’s no room for you.” 

Privately, fellow managers have accused Plugge of leveraging his role as AIGCP president to get what he wants, and have accused him of abusing his powerful position. Rouleur, meanwhile, has seen multiple letters signed by team managers addressed to Plugge in the past year, with one telling him that mistrust was so prevalent that teams “are more divided than ever before.” The message was clear: the blame for the unrest and lack of cohesion lies squarely at Plugge’s door.

Driving meaningful change 

For his part, Plugge recently told the RadioCycling podcast that, “I never broke any rules with any rider… I have to follow the laws and rules like everybody does.” He added: “You cannot claim we [AIGCP board] are doing it for our own purposes.” In an interview with the Outer Line in 2019, long before the current controversies, Plugge said: “Dutch people tell it is like it is. They can be very direct. Some would say rude or not so polite. But what people really mean is: this is the problem we have, and now let’s solve it.” It has turned out to be a prophetic statement.

Image by ASO

Both his critics and supporters have suggested that if Plugge really wants to drive through meaningful change within cycling, a rebuilding job he views as essential, that he should relinquish his role as Visma-Lease a Bike’s manager. One pointed out that Ecclestone, Plugge’s idol, “left [F1 team] Brabham when he knew the time was right to change direction. Richard isn’t capable of doing that.” Indeed, when asked by this author in October why he doesn’t pursue a different role in the sport, Plugge replied: “Because I like the role as team manager.” Unless he changes his strategy – and AIGCP elections are looming in 2024 – Plugge seems to have made his bed. 

To some, he is the sport’s foremost and pre-eminent leader right now, a man who has transformed a blemished team into world-beaters; to others he is selfish and egotistical, a villain when he is supposed to be a companion and chairman. Ecclestone managed to tactfully combine both – acutely conscious of collateral damage, but bringing enough people with him to override the critics. Can Plugge do the same?

Most seem to think that in a boardroom setting his arsenal has run dry – talks over OneCycling are stuttering along – but in the sporting auditorium he’s talking about building on a dynasty that has won the last two Tours de France and is the reigning champion in all three Grand Tours. “After the Tour de France I am always thinking, ‘Ok, what’s for the next five years?” he said recently. “We have to always be thinking of what will happen in five years’ time, and how things will look like then.” He’s a ceaseless visionary, one with a perpetual eye on the future, but whether or not he’s an inspired leader depends on who you ask.

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